The novelty of “talkies” was so new that any kind of singing and dancing with dialogue must have been enough of an attraction to make a movie like The Broadway Melody a hit.
It tells the story of a Broadway songsmith who brings his fiancée and her younger sister to Manhattan to help them get their big break. Apparently there was a technicolor sequence in the original release that has since long been lost. That too must have been part of the draw.
The promotional poster for the film seems to confirm this idea featuring in huge block letters…
It’s hard to imagine today a movie enticing you to see it with the promise of talking. It had a couple of carry-overs from the silent film era. They use title cards to setup some scenes.
“The birthday party at the girls’ apartment.”
And where a title card in a silent film could give you backstory and exposition the writers hadn’t quite figured out how to do that without just having characters explain things. Come to think of it there are writers today that still haven’t figured that out. (I’m looking at you Robert Zemeckis)
Bessie Love as Harriet “Hank” Mahoney is really excellent in the film, receiving a nomination for best actress for her work. But apart from her performance there isn’t much substance to the movie.
It’s touted as a musical and I can confirm it does in fact have music in it. The titular song (a catchy little ditty) is the only song sung in the first third of the film and it’s sung three times. I consider films like The Broadway Melody a “cheat musical” because it’s set in a performance environment where songs are performed as part of a show. You don’t have to find clever ways to transition characters from talking to singing. You just have them say, “Let’s take it from the top!”
White Christmas is a good example of this. Most of the songs are performed on stage for an audience. But the execution is so remarkable you don’t mind so much.
The Broadway Melody is really more of a rom-com-drama than a musical. But the comedy is dated and the love triangle feels cliché. It’s part of a long list of clichés but I tend to cut very old movies a little slack because it’s entirely possible these elements weren’t cliché yet. Who knows? It might have been innovative.
With about 25 minutes left we’re suddenly thrust into the Broadway show the girls are in with back-to-back musical numbers. We get a shot of the program before each song so we know what they’re about to sing. These numbers might have a light connection to the story if you’re really looking but it’s a reach.
The “spectacle” of Broadway doesn’t hold up well. It might have been grand for audiences at the time but close ups of tap dancing in ballet shoes mixed with wide shots of chorus lines didn’t impress. And these aren’t exactly show-stopping production numbers either. Speaking of White Christmas, John Brascia and Vera-Ellen they ain’t.
But what The Broadway Melody lacks in precision it attempts to make up for with volume. Lots of dancers. Lots and lots of kicking, whirling, flailing dancers.
But the film isn’t really built around the musical numbers. It’s the story of these three people in New York working to make it on Broadway trying to navigate a difficult love triangle. And on the strength of that it’s a decent movie.
The Broadway Melody won best picture in 1929. But it’s the only Oscar it won. In fact, that year there were 7 Academy Award categories and each Oscar went to a different film. It’s the only year that no film won more than a single Oscar.
It’s a far cry from the musicals we know today or even the musicals we know from 60 years ago. But The Broadway Melody is widely considered the very first movie musical* paving the way for the more than 2,000 that would follow.
*Movies like The Jazz Singer and The Singing Fool were only part-talkies with musical numbers. The Broadway Melody was the first true full movie musical.
DVD available from Netflix.